YEAR B: CHRISTMAS 1
Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Today’s reading continues the readings from ‘Third Isaiah’ which we have had in Advent and as alternate reading 2 on Christmas Day. The time is post-Exile, sometime after about 520BCE, and the place is Jerusalem. The prophet is rejoicing because of the restoration of Israel after the release from exile in Babylon. In v. 10 the prophet speaks as one released to enjoy the promises of God to restore the people. But the prophet’s joy is not focused on vindication with the overthrowing of the oppressors of Israel. It is the type of joy that naturally springs forth at a wedding or in the new growth of springtime. It is joy that arises not just in God’s deliverance of his people but in the bringing forth of righteousness. Not only have the people been delivered but they have been changed in the process. This joy is based on the prophet’s understanding that God is opposed to injustice.
Earlier in v. 8, God had said: ‘I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.’ As he experiences the restoration of Israel the prophet rejoices on behalf of the people describing himself as one clothed in righteousness. He is dressed in ‘garments of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness’ (v.10). The word translated ‘righteousness’ is tsedakah, which also means justice and mercy. The robing is indicative of the coronation of royalty, and indicates the prophet’s status as anointed representative of God (cf. Isa 61:1-2a).
The imagery that follows is partly like that of a marriage ceremony. The robe shines with the righteousness of God like the head-dress (perhaps a turban) and jewellery of a bridegroom and bride at their wedding. In any case, the prophet understands that God has now taken Israel in a covenant of faithfulness like a marriage. God’s faithfulness is also as predictable and reliable as the natural cycle of the growing earth. Israel is to exhibit that righteousness of God in its own restored life, so that it will be apparent to onlookers among other peoples (v. 11). The writer might also have had in mind an eschatological framework in this imagery, where they proclaim the beginning of ‘the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God’ (61:2).
Chapter 62 opens with the prophet’s personal commitment to the restored Jerusalem. He will pray and intercede (in prophetic and especially Mosaic fashion) constantly until Jerusalem’s vindication is clear to all who had accused her of unrighteousness. He ‘will not keep silent’ (v. 1). This is in clear contradistinction to the silence of the Lord in 42:14. This prophetic writer characteristically takes ideas from previous sections in Isaiah and reinterprets them. The similarity to some of the language of the servant songs in Second Isaiah is an example (cf. especially Isa 50:4-11). He is completely absorbed in his intense expectancy, and it is clear that he will continue to speak until the dawn of the day of salvation (v. 1), or the ‘day of the Lord’. The image of the ‘burning torch’ recalls the ‘light’ and ‘brightness’ of 60:1, associated with the coming of the Lord’s glory. When this brightness arises the Lord will give Jerusalem a new name. According to Jeremiah 33:16 the new name of Jerusalem in the ‘day of the Lord’ is ‘Yahweh is our vindication’, which fits Third Isaiah’s previously stated understanding.
There follow two indicators of Zion’s royal status in the eyes of God. The prophet says Jerusalem will be ‘a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord’ and ‘a royal diadem in the hand of your God.’ Again Third Isaiah appears to be alluding to previous descriptions of Israel, turning them on their head. In chapter 28 the garlands of the unjust will be trampled by the Lord, who will be ‘a garland of glory and a diadem of beauty’ to the righteous. Again we see the ethical dimensions of the prophet’s understanding of God’s glory. Whereas it was ancient kings who wore crowns shaped like city walls, now it is the Lord who will hold the crown or diadem of Jerusalem in his hand. This is a stunning image of the close and precious relationship between God and Israel. The proliferation of images in this passage speaks itself of the mystery and overwhelming joy that comes with God’s deliverance of his people.
The gospel of the day (Luke 2:22-40) continues the imagery of light and glory, and the salvation of God. Simeon is in effect the new Isaiah who now recognizes in Jesus the coming vindication of Israel. Luke emphasizes the light that will shine from Jesus’ coming as illumination or enlightenment to the Gentiles. Here he refers us back to the ‘glory of the Lord’ which shone as the angels delivered the message of Jesus’ birth.
The messages from Isaiah and Luke have some points on common. As well as the overwhelming joy in the coming of the Lord to his people, both have an ethical note to them. God’s deliverance of his people not only issues in their new freedom from oppression but in a new ethic, a new behaviour and way among God’s people. It also has a universal note. Through the justice and mercy of the people, the God of justice will enlighten the whole world. There is a world changing action taking place in this seemingly inconsequential event.
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